February 18, 2019

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Tovey triumphs at music fest he co-founded

Maestro Bramwell Tovey was greeted with a standing ovation as soon as he entered the stage at the Winnipeg New Music Festival on Saturday, Jan. 26. He co-founded the festival in 1991.

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Maestro Bramwell Tovey was greeted with a standing ovation as soon as he entered the stage at the Winnipeg New Music Festival on Saturday, Jan. 26. He co-founded the festival in 1991.

Celebrated maestro Bramwell Tovey came home Saturday night as the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival launched its 28th year, taking its podium for the first time in 18 years since retiring as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director from 1989 to 2001.

The ebullient English conductor, who co-founded the festival as a “passion project” with composer Glenn Buhr in 1991, also appeared in the company of friends, including the festival’s latest composer-in-residence and co-curator Harry Stafylakis, Winnipeg-born composer Jocelyn Morlock, whom he appointed Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence during his subsequent 18-year position as the B.C. orchestra’s music director that wrapped up last summer, as well as Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, whose music has graced this stage many times.

The first concert of the week-long series, WNMF Bramwell Tovey: Legacy, which runs nightly until Friday, Feb. 1, ostensibly became a passing of the baton to the festival’s newest custodian and artistic director, WSO maestro Daniel Raiskin. He introduced the evening by quipping, “Winnipeg and winter creates a win-win situation,” before paying homage to his predecessor as “a founding father" of the festival.

Such was the degree of levity with Tovey, his dry wit as sharp as ever, sharing plenty of anecdotes as he reminisced about the festival's earliest glory days, with even a few viola jokes tossed in for good measure. Most poignantly, the award-winning conductor/composer, who received a heartfelt standing ovation as soon as he went onstage, asked the WSO musicians who were there that first night back in 1991 to stand. Remarkably, nearly a dozen players were a living testament to the continuity of ages, as well as their own lifelong dedication to the WSO. Not posing the same question to the crowd of 1,298 became a missed opportunity, with many (this writer included) also clamouring for their turn to rise and shine.

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Celebrated maestro Bramwell Tovey came home Saturday night as the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival launched its 28th year, taking its podium for the first time in 18 years since retiring as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director from 1989 to 2001.

The ebullient English conductor, who co-founded the festival as a "passion project" with composer Glenn Buhr in 1991, also appeared in the company of friends, including the festival’s latest composer-in-residence and co-curator Harry Stafylakis, Winnipeg-born composer Jocelyn Morlock, whom he appointed Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence during his subsequent 18-year position as the B.C. orchestra’s music director that wrapped up last summer, as well as Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, whose music has graced this stage many times.

Bramwell Tovey, seen in 1996, when he was artistic director of the WSO.

Bramwell Tovey, seen in 1996, when he was artistic director of the WSO.

The first concert of the week-long series, WNMF Bramwell Tovey: Legacy, which runs nightly until Friday, Feb. 1, ostensibly became a passing of the baton to the festival’s newest custodian and artistic director, WSO maestro Daniel Raiskin. He introduced the evening by quipping, "Winnipeg and winter creates a win-win situation," before paying homage to his predecessor as "a founding father" of the festival.

Such was the degree of levity with Tovey, his dry wit as sharp as ever, sharing plenty of anecdotes as he reminisced about the festival's earliest glory days, with even a few viola jokes tossed in for good measure. Most poignantly, the award-winning conductor/composer, who received a heartfelt standing ovation as soon as he went onstage, asked the WSO musicians who were there that first night back in 1991 to stand. Remarkably, nearly a dozen players were a living testament to the continuity of ages, as well as their own lifelong dedication to the WSO. Not posing the same question to the crowd of 1,298 became a missed opportunity, with many (this writer included) also clamouring for their turn to rise and shine.

The program featured American composer John Adams’ seminal 1985 work Harmonielehre performed on the inaugural "NMF" program, and notably only the second time Tovey has led the monumental piece. The three-movement work unabashedly rejected the shackles of 12-tone serial compositional practice, which was rampant during the 20th century, while reasserting tenets of late Romanticism, including several sections evoking Sibelius and Mahler, still riding a chariot of listener-friendly minimalism first conceived by later 20th century icons Steve Reich and Philip Glass (both composers having appeared on this festival stage).

Tovey led the players with forceful conviction from the first movement’s opening battering ram, repeated E-minor chords that eventually subside into its nostalgic central lyrical theme that recalls a kinder, gentler era, before gearing up for its propulsive race to the finish. The second medieval mythology-inspired The Anfortas Wound became fittingly lugubrious, including WSO principal trumpet Chris Fensom's elegiac solo performed flawlessly, including his seamless, fully supported upper range.

The finale Meister Eckhardt and Quackie named for the composer’s fantastical dream about his young daughter, jolted listeners with its motoric energy fuelled by punches of percussion and the wind section holding on for dear life. Tovey well-paced the work’s steadily rising crescendo to walls of thundering sound that became a defiant, fist-shaking manifesto on the power of tonality through harmony, receiving an expected standing ovation by the rapt crowd.

Another highlight proved to be Morlock’s Lucid Dreams, a three-movement cello concerto inspired by her own insomnia-skewed dreams, that became an ideal showcase for the soulful artistry of WSO principal cellist Yuri Hooker.

This WSO treasure’s solo instrument appears as protagonist in Morlock’s musical landscape of instrumental colour, including fleeting wisps of her trademark birdcalls always evoking the naturalistic sensibility of Messiaen. Hooker held nothing back during his passionate performance of her evocative music, waxing poetic against the now smaller-sized chamber ensemble with the eloquence of a private soliloquy. A question always worth asking of contemporary music is whether one wishes to hear it again. In this case, the answer proved a resounding yes – and may that be in Hooker’s compelling hands.

The program opened with Stafylakis’s Brittle Fracture, one of his earliest orchestral pieces, dated 2013, in which seeds were clearly being sown for greater, more epic-scale things to come. The one-movement work begins effectively with a simple, hypnotic four-note theme heard (mostly) in piano and harp that gradually becomes subsumed by a larger forces, including belching brass and rugged downbowing effects courtesy of the lower strings. Stafylakis’s effective use of texture helped build dramatic tension and suspense through to the piece’s final crash of cymbals.

Murphy’s Black Sand (2009), inspired by the forging of Japanese samurai swords, also included a wide palette of timbral colour, including snap pizzicatos, and her take-no-prisoners percussion writing performed with aplomb. But she also displayed greater lyricism during the string passages, as well as during WSO second trumpet Paul Jeffrey’s fearless solo, which was a highlight.

There’s a distinct sense that this latest incarnation of the festival is seeking firm new footing due to the relatively recent changing of its guard. That’s to be expected. However, the night ultimately belonged to Tovey, who was given a final rousing standing ovation with prolonged applause and a call for two curtain calls. Although he might be gone from this podium – at least for the foreseeable future – his inestimable legacy and contribution to this now 71-year old orchestra is never to be forgotten.

The festival continues nightly until Friday, Feb. 1.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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